Lessons from a Suffering Church
Revelation 2:8-11 8 "To the angel of the church in Smyrna write: These are the words of him who is the First and the Last, who died and came to life again. 9 I know your afflictions and your poverty-- yet you are rich! I know the slander of those who say they are Jews and are not, but are a synagogue of Satan. 10 Do not be afraid of what you are about to suffer. I tell you, the devil will put some of you in prison to test you, and you will suffer persecution for ten days. Be faithful, even to the point of death, and I will give you the crown of life. 11 He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. He who overcomes will not be hurt at all by the second death.
If the first mark of a true and living church is fervent love, the second is the ability to endure suffering. Being willing to suffer or sacrifice for another proves the genuineness of love. We are willing to suffer only for those we love. Evidently Christians in Smyrna had not lost their fervent love for Christ for they were prepared to suffer for Him. Like Peter and John, they were "rejoicing because they had been counted worthy of suffering disgrace for the Name" of Christ.
The Church at Smyrna was a suffering church. They had experienced past afflictions and were going to encounter sever trials so they are encouraged to endure. A suffering church needs to look to their Lord and look to their future.
I. CHARACTERISTICS (8)
-First let’s look at some characteristics of the city. The city of Smyrna (modern Izmir, Turkey) is located thirty-five miles due north up the coast from Ephesus. It would be the next city the postman reached on his circular route of the seven churches. Smyrna was a wealthy city, second only to Ephesus. It is considered by historians as the most exquisite city the Greeks ever built. It had an excellent protected natural harbor and like Ephesus a good road gave it access to the interior. It was a planned city with wide streets surrounded by hills which were topped by temples for every known heathen god. On the side of one hill was a amphitheater large enough for over 20,000 people. It was constructed for emperor worship. By the time the Book of Revelation was written, emperor worship was compulsory. The churches were persecuted because they wouldn’t bow down to Caesar and burn incense in the temple dedicated to Kaiser curios, Caesar is Lord!
-Unlike Ephesus which is no more, Smyrna is still a large city grown from about 100,000 people in John’s day to about 200,000 today, amazingly one-third of which are Christians. In this large and flourishing commercial center was a small persecuted church to whom this letter was sent.
-The letter to the church at Smyrna was personally written to people under pressure. Every word He speaks to this suffering body is one of appreciation. Only two of the seven churches received letters of total commendation and encouragement: Smyrna is one and Philadelphia is the other.
-In the second half of verse 8 we find the titles Jesus’ uses to describe Himself to the persecuted church. The First and the Last, Who was dead, and has come to life, says this:
-The Lord Jesus chose these titles for Himself to inspire confidence in a threatened church. He is the First and the Last. Christ states this is His position in relation to time and eternity. He is the Eternal God who has always existed in the past and will always exist in the future. He is also the One Who Became Dead, referring to His death on the cross and the One Who Lives, referring to His resurrection as the One who conquered death.
-The title is a reminder that even the divine Son of God willingly became subject to the rejection and persecution of man. The Church in Smyrna should anticipate the same ultimate victory over all foes just as Christ experienced. The grave could not hold Christ. He is the One Who Lives, symbolizing His triumph over death, rejection and persecution. They too can experience victory in His Ultimate Victory.
CHRIST, OUR PIONEER LEADER
-You may have heard of people blazing a trail in areas where there are no roads or paths of any kind. People take hatchets and cut out some of the bark of the trees as they go along, and then they easily find their way by these "blazes." They call it "blazing the trail." Christ has "blazed the trail." He has traveled the road himself, and knowing the way, He tells us to follow Him, and He will lead us safe on high.
-If we will take our eyes from one another, and follow Jesus by living in His Spirit and obeying His word, we will be led in the right way. We might avoid many distressing times, if we were only willing to walk with God, if we would let Him take us by the hand and lead us daily. What God wants us to do is to follow in His footsteps. Pioneer scouts sometimes found Indian trails consisting of only one set of footprint, appearing as if only one man had passed over the land. The chief goes before, and all the rest of the warriors follow him and put their feet into his footsteps. That is what our Chief wants us to do. He has passed through the heavens, gone up on high, and He wants us to follow no matter the obstacles.
Yes, we will face difficulties and obstacles, but they can help become opportunities to find re-access and see if we are on the light blazed path.
-When projected pictures are to be viewed by an audience, the presenter often darkens the room in which the people are seated, so that the pictures may be more fully seen. So God sometimes darkens our place on earth, puts out this light, this hope in earth, and then shows us the splendors and glories of that which is to come. This is what was going to occur for the Church at Smyra.
II. COMMENDATION (9)
I know your afflictions and your poverty-- yet you are rich! I know the slander of those who say they are Jews and are not, but are a synagogue of Satan.
-Here we find Christ commending them for their faithfulness under testing. He knows their tribulation, their oppression. [He knows our circumstances. We are not forgotten.] They had cruel enemies who were aggressively causing their affliction and its resulting stress and even distress. They had no monetary resources to resist or fall back on. Their poverty is abject poverty. [Either they were from a poor class of people or they were extremely poor possibly because their goods had been taken through persecution.] But Jesus quickly reminds them of the precious thought that they are rich. Their spiritual condition stands in sharp contrast to their economic condition (Lk. 12:21- rich toward God).
-There is a richness in spiritual, eternal things that has nothing to do with this world’s wealth. The poor of this world have greater opportunity to be rich in faith, and full in love, otherwise who would not fall and fail under such circumstances.
-They were also rich in heaven for they had invested their life for Heaven instead of in the fleeting riches of earth. What they had lost or had been taken from them in this world, God would make up for them in Heaven. Their faithfulness had purchased for them a great inheritance in Heaven. They may endure what seemed like Hell here on earth for a season, but there was coming a day when they would receive their inheritance in Heaven.
-They were also slandered or blasphemed by the false Jews of the synagogue of Satan. Their persecutors were not only pagans but also hostile Jews and Satan himself. These are false Jews who were born Jews but forsook the true faith of God that would have led them to faith in His Eternal Son. These Jewish people were slandering, or spreading false rumors or reporsts about the Christians. Satan was poisoning minds against these believers with his lies. Therefore Christ calls them those that blasphemy, which means misrepresent, a synagogue of Satan. They had learned their ways from the father of lies. False religion has always been the most zealous opponent of the truth. This is what they were enduring, but there was more to come.
III. COMMAND (10)
Do not fear what you are about to suffer. Behold, the devil is about to cast some of you into prison, that you may be tested, and you will have tribulation ten days. Be faithful until death, and I will give you the crown of life.
Satan wants to stamp out the testimony of believers in the midst of his domain, yet they are not to be afraid, though suffering is certain. Some will be imprisoned by the devil using the system of this world. But God is supreme. Even through the devil and evil men God works out His purposes. The imprisonment will be that you may be tested.
-Why do the godly suffer as in the case of the Smyrna church? The answer to this question is largely bound up in the doctrine of the sovereignty of God. The will of God is holy, just, and good, but it has the eternal and not just the earthly as its objective. An explanation is given in Scripture for varied aspects of Christian suffering. In some cases, suffering in the life of a child of God may be disciplinary as indicated in God’s dealings with the church at Corinth (I Cor. 11:30-32; Heb. 12:3-13). In other cases it may be preventative as illustrated in Paul’s thorn in the flesh (II Cor. 12:7). Paul was kept from exulting above measure in the divine revelation given to him through the humiliation of his thorn in the flesh.
-Suffering is also represented in Scripture as teaching the child of God what could otherwise remain unlearned. Even Christ is said to have "learned ... obedience by the things which He suffered" (Heb. 5:8), and for Christians in general the experience of suffering is educative. Paul writes in Romans 5:3-5, And not only this, but we also exult in our tribulations, knowing that tribulation brings about perseverance; and perseverance, proven character; and proven character, hope; and hope does not disappoint, because the love of God has been poured out within our hearts through the Holy Spirit who was given to us.
-Another reason for suffering is found in the fact that Christians through suffering can often bear a better testimony for Christ. The world has difficultly doubting the reality of belief of that for which you are willing to suffer. This was true of Paul of whom Jesus said in Acts 9:16, "For I will show him what great things he must suffer for My name’s sake." The experience of the church at Smyrna, therefore, though undesired by them, was undoubtedly designed by an infinitely wise and loving God for their good as well as for the better testimony of the gospel (WalVoord, p. 65).
The early apostles, and the apostle Paul, had seen the inside of many prisons. The cells of Jerusalem and Caesarea, of Philippi and Rome, had been sanctified by prayers and praises, and had their darkness illumined by Christ’s presence.
-What is the meaning of this "ten days"? When Abraham’s servant wanted to carry off Rebecca, her brother and mother requested that she stay with them 10 days . When Daniel and his friends would not allow themselves to be defiled by the king’s food, they asked the officer in charge to try them for ten days. So the words must have a meaning in the Bible. It seems possible that they indicate "just a short time." Is this the Lord’s meaning in His message to the church at Smyrna?
-He seems to be saying, first, that there are certain days marked out for suffering, and that those days are calculated by God. They are inescapable, but after they are over we shall be freed. On the other hand, he seems to affirm that the trials are brief. The ten days are but a short time. No matter what tribulation you pass through before God, it will soon be past. Be faithful therefore. He awaits you with a crown of life.
-Though the ten days indicates a short specific time of suffering, some would suffer death. History gives us a specific example.
-The lead pastor of the church in Smyrna was a student and disciple of John. His name is somewhat foreign to us. His name was Polycarp. Polycarp’s ministry ended in A.D. 156 when persecution of Christians increased and they were tortured and thrown to the wild beasts. Polycarp was marched into the amphitheater where a mob was waiting to see what form of morbid pleasure they could get from his violent death. Brought before a Roman governor on a charge of atheism (because he would not acknowledge the emperor as God), he was repeatedly encouraged to change his mind about Christ being the only one worthy of worship. But he could not be moved. "For 86 years," replied Polycarp, "I have been His servant, and He has never done me wrong; how can I blaspheme my King who has saved me?" The governor reacted angrily, "I’ll have you destroyed by fire unless you change your attitude."
-Polycarp answered: "You threaten me with fire which burns for an hour and after a little is extinguished. But you are ignorant of the fires of the coming judgment and of eternal punishment reserved for the ungodly. But why do you delay? Bring on what you will.
The governor was amazed, and sent the crier to stand in the middle of the arena and announce three times: "Polycarp has confessed that he is a Christian." Then a shout went up that Polycarp must be burned alive.
-The crowd gathered wood and threw torches on the pyre. Their hatred was bitter and they cheered as the godly man was brought to the stake. As the flames began to curl around his body, Polycarp prayed: "I thank You that You have graciously thought me worthy of this day and of this hour, that I may be a part of the number of martyrs to die for Christ."
-Humanly speaking, I dread to think what the family of God went through in old Smyrna. I would never want to see such a day. I’m not among those who pray for it. But we should be as fortunate as the man they called Polycarp. I am sure he would say to us today, "Don’t feel bad for us. We’ve moved on. We’re not around here anymore. We’re gone for good--but it’s our good. Those of us who were Christians and were killed for the faith are alive and well in the presence of the One who has saved us."
Jesus’ exhortation and promise is Be faithful until death, and I will give you the crown of life. Faith will banish fear. They cannot co-exist. The Psalmist wrote "when I am afraid I will trust in you" (Ps. 56:3). There is no other course to take. It is from faith that faithfulness springs. Trust in Christ and you shall be trustworthy. Rely on Christ and you shall be reliable. Depend on Christ and you shall be dependable. Have faith in Christ and you shall be faithful, if necessary even faith unto death. Remember, God, not Satan, has the last word.
IV. COMMITMENT (11)
-In verse 11 we see God’s Promise to Overcomers. He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. He who overcomes shall not be hurt by the second death.
-The glories of life eternal stand in sharp contrast to the short trials of even martyrdom and erase the dark shadow of persecution. Yes, the hostile demon controlled world in its rejection of the Christian message can inflict martyrdom and terminate life in this world, but those who are faithful in their opportunity to receive Christ in this life are promised that they will not be overcome with the second death.
The first death is the death of the physical body which all men, believers and unbelievers alike, must suffer. After that all people will be resurrected. The second death is eternal death. It is proceeded by a judgment at the Great White Throne (Rev. 20:11-15) and then the casting into the Lake of Fire and Brimstone or eternal Hell. It is eternal separation from God. Those who win the crown of life will not go there but will experience the blessing of Christ throughout all eternity in Heaven with Him.
1. Suffering often comes to the people of God (It does not necessarily show a lack of faith or a pattern of failure)
2. True Wealth can only be measured by how long it lasts (forever)
3. Faith not Fear is the proper response to all forms of adversity
4. Death does not have the final answer
-Jesus had no words of rebuke or complaint for this suffering church. The message to the Smyrna church was to remain faithful during their suffering because God is in control and His promises are reliable.
-We can be certain that there will be persecution and pain. But more than that, we can be certain that in the face of persecution, we can have complete victory. We can have victory because we can be sure that no matter what we may face, that God is with us through it all. And we can have the victory because we know that evil and suffering will only be allowed for a short time, and even if it comes to death, we will inherit eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.
-It costs to be a dedicated follower of Christ, more in some times and places than in others. Jesus never said that by being faithful to Him we would avoid troubles, suffering and persecution. The very trials that afflict us should deliver us from a lack of fervent love and keep us from any impurity or compromise with evil. We remain faithful by keeping our eyes on Christ and on what He promises us both now and in the future. So press on my brother! Press on my sister! It won’t be very long and we will leave this world behind and will enter the precious land of song!
Lord, teach us to be faithful to the end.
[Adapted from Dennis Davidson, sermoncentral.com]